Cutting ISIS’ Communication: Weighing the Costs
Though ISIS (the Islamic State) is not the first terrorist group to use social media, it arguably has the most sophisticated social media strategy. In 2014, the number of ISIS-linked Twitter accounts nearly tripled, as ISIS members and supporters alike increasingly turned to Twitter to recruit and promulgate their narrative. Some analysts now estimate that ISIS militants and supporters control as many as 90,000 Twitter accounts, while others say the number is closer to 26,000.
In keeping with ISIS’s social media strategy, these accounts utilize popular hashtags and tweet in high volume bursts in order to infiltrate external – and often western – networks. This was especially evident during the 2014 World Cup, when ISIS supporters hijacked the #WorldCup2014 hashtag to share pro-ISIS content, capitalizing on the publicity of the event. ISIS also uses Twitter hashtags to focus its group messaging and branding concepts, mimicking the strategies of large Western corporations. On top of this, many argue that ISIS’ social media strategy has not yet peaked.
In the past Twitter has taken more aggressive action against ISIS-linked accounts, including suspending 10,000 accounts in a single day for “tweeting violent threats.” This particular increase in suspensions coincided with threats against former Twitter CEO Dick Costolo, founder and current CEO Jack Dorsey, and employees at Twitter’s San Francisco headquarters. Costolo said the accounts’ tweets violated Twitter’s terms of service and laws in many of Twitter’s operating countries.
An image of Twitter founder, Jack Dorsey, in cross-hairs alongside an anonymous rant claiming Twitter employees are a target for ISIS fighters. (Daily Mail)
Social activists, such as the hacking group Anonymous, have encouraged Twitter and other social media platforms to continue deleting ISIS-linked accounts. In February 2015, Anonymous listed 800 Twitter accounts, 12 Facebook pages and over 50 e-mail addresses that were linked to ISIS, and encouraged the sites to suspend the accounts. This effort was part of Anonymous’ #OpISIS (or #OpIceISIS) campaign, which aims to “show what the government is not doing.”
Although Twitter, with the help of social activists, has suspended thousands of accounts, this tactic is not sustainable in the long term. While suspending 10,000 may be a viable option, this number will only grow larger as militants and supporters continue to increase their social media presence. A surge in ISIS-linked accounts will also cause more difficultly for companies and social activists who manually seek out these accounts. This year, a cybersecurity activist misidentified a number of accounts by using an algorithm to create a database of ISIS-linked Twitter users. Among those accounts mistakenly targeted were Al Jazeera’s Arabic News account, a Washington, DC-based journalist, and a Palestinian activist.
Many ISIS-linked users attach images or videos to their tweets, content that is then re-tweeted countless times. This content continues to be accessible even after the Twitter account has been shut down, despite the efforts of online reporting systems. Moreover, suspending an account does not prevent the user from creating a new account. Some even argue that deleting these accounts further fuels the creation of more accounts. ISIS supporters often create a new username almost immediately, often by simply altering one letter or number. A single user may have created hundreds of iterations of similar accounts.
Perhaps most importantly, ISIS supporters are turning to other social media platforms to recruit and propagate their message. These sites are often more isolated than Twitter, and may thus serve as an echo chamber in which supporters are radicalized more quickly and intensely. Recently, for example, ISIS created an official Twitter called “Dawn of Glad Tidings,” or “Dawn,” which allows users to stay up-to-date on the latest ISIS-related news.
A Double-Edged Sword
The relative accessibility of Twitter to journalists and those outside the ISIS network presents a unique opportunity for open source intelligence collection. Understanding ISIS’s motivations and worldview may prove crucial in creating counter-narratives to dissuade potential recruits from joining the ranks of ISIS.
With both government agencies and social activists campaigning for more action against ISIS-linked social media accounts, there also exists an argument against doing so. In June 2015, after tracking the conversation of ISIS members in an online forum, the US Air Force (USAF) was able to geolocate some of the members. After uncovering their location, the USAF was then able to locate an ISIS headquarters building, which it then destroyed in an airstrike – all within 22 hours of tracking the conversation.
Some officials argue against shutting down ISIS-linked Twitter accounts, saying that keeping them running is one way the intelligence community can continue tracking their activities and whereabouts. Also, while promoting how government agencies and military units are tracking ISIS members via their social media accounts show successes against ISIS, it also unintentionally tips off ISIS members to how they are located. The unintended consequences of shutting down ISIS-linked communication show how the messaging battle is a double-edged sword.
However, it is fairly uncommon for ISIS members to accidentally reveal their locations or potential plans. Not surprisingly, the majority of ISIS-linked Twitter users do not have their geolocation feature turned on. ISIS has even threatened to confiscate the phones of members who do not turn off their geolocation, perhaps after taking notice to how government agencies and analyst are using Tweets to their benefit.
The Way Ahead
It seems clear that the current strategy to counter ISIS’ social media strategy is not working. The question of how to curb ISIS’ online success is one with no single correct answer. The answer is multifaceted and will evolve, just as ISIS’ tactics evolve. The answer does not only include strategic online messaging, but on the ground peer-to-peer messaging. One thing is for sure, and that is we must find a way to beat ISIS at their own game, the communications game.
Erica Dunham, Senior Research Analyst
Tess Wallenstein, Undergraduate Communications and Research Intern